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Is the Capital of Tennessee About to Decriminalize Marijuana?

As Tennessee NORML begins gathering signatures for a petition to place a referendum on the ballot in Metro-Nashville's August general election that would defund prosecutions for possession of under 2 ounces of pot, 5 out of 7 candidates for mayor just signaled support for or openness to marijuana decriminalization at a Tuesday candidate forum.

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Barry Donegan
Barry Donegan is a writer, musician, and pro-liberty political activist living in Nashville, TN. Donegan served as Director-at-Large of the Davidson County Republican Party from 2009-2011 and was the Middle Tennessee Regional Coordinator over 30 counties for Ron Paul's 2012 Presidential Campaign. Follow him at facebook.com/barry.donegan and twitter.com/barrydonegan

A tipping point may have just been reached on the issue of marijuana decriminalization in Nashville, Tennessee. At a Tuesday candidate forum for Nashville’s 2015 mayoral race, five out of seven candidates for mayor signaled their support of or openness to the idea of decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana, a fact which Tennessean writer Joey Garrison called “a sign of changing attitudes toward the drug that could boost ongoing efforts to change the law in Davidson County.” The ongoing efforts he mentioned include the pro-pot group TN-NORML‘s drive to collect signatures for a petition to place a referendum on August’s city-wide general election ballot that would allow voters to choose whether to de facto decriminalize the possession of under two ounces of marijuana by defunding prosecutions at the city level.

At the mayoral candidate forum, which was hosted by Nashville’s public radio affiliate WPLN along with local attorneys’ groups, candidates Megan Berry and Jeremy Kane openly espoused their support for decriminalization, while Howard Gentry, David Fox, and Charles Robert Bone signaled their willingness to consider it. Bill Freeman positioned himself against decriminalization, and The Tennessean characterized Linda Eskind Rebrovick’s position as seeming to oppose changing the law.

Charles Robert Bone told those in attendance, “I’ve thought for a long time that the criminalization of small amounts of marijuana was totally unfair… So, I, too, would be receptive to that.” Megan Berry pointed out how pot criminalization has disproportionately affected Nashville’s minority communities, and Howard Gentry noted the fact that sentencing laws exacerbate prohibition’s unfairness.

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TN-NORML’s effort to change the law through a city-wide referendum requires that the group collect at least 6,877 valid signatures of registered voters by May 18. If the group is successful, a charter amendment proposal would be placed on August’s general election ballot that would allow Nashvillians to vote up-or-down on whether the city’s law enforcement resources should go towards enforcing criminal laws against possession of less than two ounces of pot. Though state laws would still ban pot possession if the charter amendment were to pass, citizens arrested by Nashville police in violation of the amendment would be able to sue the city for damages. TN-NORML’s attorney Daniel Horwitz said of the initiative, “This is a novel attempt at de-funding prosecution of low-level marijuana offenses. This initiative certainly isn’t a panacea, but once enacted, it would ensure that no more Metro dollars are wasted prosecuting adults for the simple possession of small amounts of marijuana going forward.”

Doak Patton, president of TN-NORML, told The Tennessean, “We would like to see resources devoted toward violent criminals, thieves and people who are needing to be locked away instead of nonviolent offenders.”

Though Tennessee is a hard-red, socially-conservative state, its Republican government recently legalized hemp. Nashville, Tennessee’s capital, is widely known as an open-minded, culturally-diverse center of music and the arts for the deep south, and its voters typically elect liberal-leaning Democrats. Nashvillians also elected former criminal defense attorney Glenn Funk to the position of District Attorney last year after he ran a campaign promising to focus the city’s prosecutions on violent criminals rather than low-level drug users.

Ben Swann recently tackled the federal government’s mixed messages on marijuana prohibition in a September 2014 Truth in Media episode. Watch it in the embedded video player below.

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